Connected Cars

da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart: A Legacy of Autonomy

Oct 10, 2017
da vinci's self-propelled cart brought to life

Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled cart on display

The renaissance period is considered one of the most pivotal and culturally transformative times in history. It is 400 years of re-birth — the actual meaning of the word “re-naissance” — and renewal, moving Europe from the dark and middle ages to a reawakening of appreciation for the classics. Progress was discovered by going back to the past, embracing the long eschewed teachings of the ancient Greeks while also advancing such things as art and literature through a more realistic approach. Into this time came several amazing artists, scientists, humanists, and all-around great thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci is among the greatest of these with his extraordinary paintings, scientific research and inventions. His Mona Lisa alone has sparked centuries of speculation and wonder, but it is his sketches of far ahead of their time ideas for mechanical contraptions that some of today’s greatest machines owe their existence. One of these is da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, the very first driverless vehicle concept, which many consider the first ever robot.

The man behind the myth

one of the only known true portraits of da Vinci

Francesco Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1515-18

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 into a situation that could have easily led to his obscurity. The illegitimate son of a peasant woman and a wealthy attorney and notary in the Italian city, Vinci, Leonardo’s surname actually means “Of Vinci,” as he was not able to take the name of his father, Ser Piero. While his parents would go on to have children with each of their respective partners after him, Leonardo was the only child the two had together and was raised on his father’s estate with some of his half siblings. By the age of 15, he had been schooled in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and was showing artistic talent. Back in the day, becoming an artist was seen as a worthwhile vocation and he was sent to study with painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, in Florence.


da Vinci innovates in the painting of his master

Battesimo di Cristo (The Baptism of Christ) — the angel kneeling at the far left is da Vinci’s first example of the innovative figura serpentinata style

Before long, young Leonardo was eclipsing his master. While working with del Verocchio, Leonardo was asked to contribute to Andrea’s painting,  The Baptism of Christ, adding to the landscape, Christ’s body and creating an angel whose twisted pose was in a brand new style that was just being recognized in the artwork of the time. It became known as figura serpentinata and legend has it that when del Verrocchio saw what his young apprentice had contributed, he was so overwhelmed by Leonardo’s talent that Andrea never painted again.

Throughout this entire era, Leonardo was constantly drawing, writing, and capturing ideas that included and went far beyond his art. He filled dozens of notebooks with hundreds of pages of sketches and notes on human anatomy, horses, birds, architecture, scientific ideas, and fantastical inventions that were precursors to the bicycle, the helicopter, the airplane, the parachute, armored tanks — he was a much sought after military strategist and designer of combat weapons and transport — and weapons. These handwritten volumes — or codices — showed portraits beside shopping lists and in his Codex Atlanticus, the plans for da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were discovered.

the Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus as presented by Pompeo Leoni in the 1600s. The “book” is a box he created to collect all the pages. Photo by Mario Taddei in 2007

Now, 15th century roads weren’t even horse-and-carriage worthy and it would be almost 400 years more before motorized travel was more than DIY trial and error. What in the world possessed Leonardo to come up with a horseless carriage let alone a robotic contraption in a time when unmanned anything was an anomaly?


A true renaissance man

Just for the record, robots or, better yet, robotics were nothing new to Leonardo. In the early 1480s, da Vinci became the military designer for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, aka Il Moro, which means The Moor due to his dark complexion and black hair. Leonardo became a huge asset to the constantly strategically vulnerable Italian city, designing countless combat vehicles and weapons, among these the first machine gun. He got the job by writing Sforza a letter introducing himself, what he could do for his region, and outlining his 11 most relevant talents with the ultimate goal of being offered the commission on sculpting a bronze statue of the duke’s late father on horseback. The letter is considered the first ever resume and worked.

Model of the robot knight based on Leonardo da Vinci drawings on display in Berlin 2005

Leonardo built his robot knight around 1495 to entertain Sforza and his court at a celebration in the duke’s honor. It amused all who attended to no end, and could sit, stand, raise its visor and its arms, and even had a technically correct jaw that allowed it to open its mouth and “talk.” It was operated via a series of pulleys and cables, making it sort of a cross between a puppet and a robot, but nothing like it had been seen at that time and it amazed everyone.

Twenty years later, Leonardo did it again with a robot lion presented to the newly crowned King of France, Francois I, by one of da Vinci’s greatest patrons, Giuliano de’ Medici. The lion was noted as having “moved from its place in the hall and when it came to a halt its breast opened, and was full of lilies and flowers.” The symbolic gift married both the icons of Florence — the lion — and the fleurs-de-lis of France — lilies.

In preparation for a renaissance festival around the same time as he created his robotic knight, Leonardo began sketching something that would delight children and fair goers. He drew up plans for an autonomous vehicle that would move through the festival on its own and be programmed to steer itself. da Vinci’s self-propelled cart — also known as “da Vinci’s Fiat” — had no seat, so ferrying passengers didn’t seem to be his goal, and the sketches showed no clear way to make it actually work. The idea stayed on the page and was puzzled over for centuries without anyone able to determine how the model would operate. And so, like so many of his sketches and plans, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart remained a beautiful, inspiring piece of art for centuries.


Cracking the da Vinci self-propelled cart code

da vinci self-propelled cart

Original sketch of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, aka “da Vinci’s Fiat”

Interest in da Vinci’s self-propelled cart was sparked in 1905 when Girolamo Calvi, an Italian intellectual and avid da Vinci fan, discovered the drawing. He nicknamed it “Leonardo’s Fiat” and enlisted the aid of international scholars to figure out the device. Almost another century would pass before the ancient sketches would be figured out.

For centuries, the greatest brains had noticed, but been unable to figure out the reason for the coiled springs in the drawings. Then in 1997, experts at The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, now known as Museo Galileo, revisited da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and realized it worked like clockwork. The car worked via a cog-and-gear system with the coiled springs serving as the propulsion. It was basically a giant wind-up toy with springs hidden in the drum system under the vehicle, and set running by winding them up and letting go, something that could be done by letting go of a string or rope from a distance to make it seem as if the cart had started on its own. It was possible to pre-program steering of the vehicle by placing pegs into a series of notches. da Vinci had thought of everything, even the road system of Florence, which was predominantly one-way. The self-propelled vehicle, therefore, was only able to make right turns in keeping with Florence’s infrastructure.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart model

Leonardo da Vinci self-propelled cart at the exhibition “Da Vinci – An Exhibition of Genius” in the Macau Tower, Macau. Photo by xiquinhosilva

By 2004, two different models of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were built — one to the specifications of Leonardo’s original design of 1.68 meters (5 feet 6 inches) long and 1.49 meters (4 feet 11 inches) wide, and another at ⅓ scale for demonstration. This was done to mitigate risk, because once the brake was released on the model, the cart was capable of “motoring” 40 meters (130 feet). Because engineers wanted to truly prove the invention could be made, they used building materials that would have been readily available to the innovator at the time, which were various woods. Heavy, strong and immensely powerful, da Vinci’s cart was a rousing success and proved that his vision not only for motorized, but autonomous travel was real, and establishing him as the first person to invent driverless transportation.

Intrigue and influence beyond imagining

Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions have long been sources of inspiration and research, prompting several engineers and aficionados to build his ideas to varying degrees of success. His elaborate designs and meticulous notes are stuff of legend and constant speculation. The armored tank he sketched, for example, had a fatal design flaw — it’s wheels rolled toward each other, meaning it would be impossible for it to ever move. Because of his brilliance and immense attention to detail, no one believes this was done by accident. Many see this as his way of ensuring one of two things: 1) that the war machine was never made (at heart, da Vinci was a pacifist) or 2) that his competitors would never be able to duplicate it.

a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci showing "mirror writing"

An example of Leonardo da Vinci’s “mirror writing”

This exquisite study in subterfuge is best seen in da Vinci’s handwritten notes themselves. He got into the habit of writing everything backwards to keep his ideas secret. Known as Mirror Writing, this threw off everyone including the commissioner hired by the Austrian Empire in 1815 who was charged with reclaiming and redistributing the various pieces of art Napoleon and his troops had commandeered and kept in the Louvre since his conquest of Milan back in 1796. Because of the right-to-left style of the Codex Atlanticus, the commissioner was about to just leave it in the Louvre rather than try to return it to a native country, because he just thought it was some sort of Chinese manuscript.  However, the commissioner for the Pope, Antonio Canova, who was on hand to help with the distribution of works, noticed what it was and told him to give it back to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Italy, the conservatory to which it was bequeathed in 1637.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart is said to have inspired the rover

An artist’s rendering of Mars Exploration Rover

From Mona Lisa and the Vitruvian Man to his flying machine and armored tank, the great inventor, artist, scientist and thinker has influenced almost every facet of art/engineering/science/philosophy. Many see a distinct resemblance between da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and the Mars Land Rover.  Many of his inventions are still used today, some of which you may not even know originated with him. The same guy who painted the enigmatic Mona Lisa, encoded Last Supper and spent countless hours dissecting human corpses to better understand anatomy for his art and science, also created the ball bearing, practical parachute, diving suit, double hulled ship (if the Titanic had one of those, it would still be floating today), and perfected the scissors and printing press. All have changed the face of technology and influenced progress today, but it is, arguably, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart that set the most extraordinary precedence. And as the world of self-driving vehicles continues to expand, the future this true renaissance man envisioned becomes a long-awaited reality.



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